Inside the Purple Palace

Touring Prince’s Paisley Park

paisley park, chanhassen, prince, tours, music, local musicians, music history, purple rain
Atrium at Paisley Park

Photos by NPG Records

First of all, Paisley Park is not a park. From the intersection of Highway 5 and Audubon Road, Prince’s 65,000-square-foot compound in Chanhassen looks like a postmodern megachurch. The spired structure, co-designed by then-29-year-old Prince (who demanded that scale models be physically brought to Minneapolis so he didn’t have to read blueprints) with architect Bret Thoeny, contains palatial living quarters, production offices, recording studios, rehearsal facilities, a concert venue, and a private nightclub. The first floor is windowless, so Prince could work on his own schedule, following his own circadian clock, without knowing whether it was day or night. 

Prince—musical innovator, vocal wizard, household name, and holder of a special place in some 5.457 million Minnesota hearts for his choice to stay here as much as his fame—died in a Paisley Park elevator last April 21st of a painkiller overdose. Even for those of us who hadn’t bought a Prince album since Purple Rain, or who didn’t even know who Prince was until we popped in the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman, the artist’s passing was a shock. Sadness rippled through fans around the world; the Minnesota state bird could very well be changed from common loon to mourning dove.

Following a rezoning snafu with the Chanhassen City Council regarding traffic, pedestrian safety, parking capacity, and, according to one councilmember, concerns over Chanhassen becoming a “tourist town,” Prince’s estate was granted a temporary permit to open Paisley Park as a museum. 

When I arrive for my $100, 100-minute V.I.P. tour, there are so many security guards milling around the fenced perimeter it makes the place feel vaguely militaristic. Several of the visitors lounging in the parking lot, clutching purple totes from the gift shop, are crying.

Inside, an employee takes my phone and locks it in a kind of rectangular foam koozie. Recording is prohibited, I’m told, but for an additional $10, V.I.P. ticket holders are allowed one photograph on the tour. The Prince symbol, that “Artist Formerly Known as” glyph, is found everywhere—set into the marble floor of the atrium, stamped over doors, stitched into carpets—like a talisman. The atrium walls are painted Looney Tunes blue, dotted with cumulus clouds and flying doves.

After I join my tour group, an employee welcomes us by saying that we’re “not fans, but family,” and advises that “if you get too emotional on the tour, just go and hug your tour guide.” He adds: “I’m serious.”

paisley park, chanhassen, prince, tours, music, local musicians, music history, purple rain
Exterior of Paisley Park

The velvet rope is unhooked, and my group (dubbed “The Beautiful Ones” by our guide, Nicolle) files into the atrium, circling the urn that stands encased on a podium in the room’s center. The urn itself was modeled after Paisley Park; Prince Rogers Nelson’s ashes are held inside a small purple box in the urn’s own atrium, as it were. LED candles cast a warm glow, and the air is spiced with potpourri. Kleenex boxes are provided. 

Nicolle directs our attention to an overhead balcony where a pair of large cages house Prince’s pet doves, Divinity and Majesty, both 24 years old. “After he passed, they weren’t talking,” Prince’s sister Tyka said in an interview. “It didn’t feel the same.”

The Beautiful Ones are corralled into Prince’s office. Along with the other rooms on this tour, the office has been kept “just as it was the last time he spent time in this space,” a placard notes. There are, of course, stylistic flourishes (hypermodern wingback desk chair, purple velvet chaise lounge), but the room is surprisingly modest: drop ceiling, family photos on shelves, small black refrigerator. On the desk, a magnifying glass. On the floor beside something called a Rocktron Banshee Talk Box sits an untouched piece of Prince’s luggage, worn and beaten, its wheels chewed. It’s something you’d never see at Elvis’s Graceland, devoid of pomp and circumstance, and somehow symbolic of how Prince, the 5’2” phenomenon with 35 worldwide tours under his 27” belt, always seemed to be moving. (It’s oddly fitting that he died in an elevator, which, of course, is not part of the tour.)

Next comes the editing bay, where an employee shows us “unedited Musicology Tour footage.” We’re shown clips of a Washington, D.C. soundcheck, band members waiting to take the stage, Prince alongside Patti LaBelle. “As you know,” the staffer says, “Prince was a perfectionist. He recorded everything.”     

Further into the complex, we enter Studio B, where a photographer stands poised behind her tripod. Those who have purchased photos have their portraits taken either standing beside or sitting at Prince’s custom-made purple acoustical touring piano.

paisley park, chanhassen, prince, tours, music, local musicians, music history, purple rain
Purple Rain earned Prince the rare honor of having the #1 movie, album, and song simultaneously. The exhibit includes the Oscar Prince won for Best Original Song Score, his personal script, his wardrobe, and one of the motorcycles featured in the film.

In the middle of the room, there’s a K-Mart–grade ping-pong table (“Prince loved ping-pong,” Nicolle says), and on the floor nearby there’s a stack of paddles in various stages of wear, one with a taped handle. The floor on each business end of the ping-pong table is lightly sneaker-scuffed from matches past; some of these scuffs likely Prince’s. For some reason, these marks—along with the untouched piece of luggage in his office—seem to humanize a man who’d always felt like a mythical force, ethereal as weather. 

Celebrity death often carries with it a sense of hushed, rubbernecking thrill. This was not the case with Prince. He cast a long shadow, scrawling his larger-than-life signature across our consciousness. Fans were urged to celebrate his life rather than mourn his death, to call or write into various news and entertainment outlets with their own Prince stories. And everybody seemed to have one. 

“He went to Caribou a lot,” one visitor, a local, tells the rest of us here in Studio B.

“My husband saw him at Byerlys,” says another. “Late at night, like 10:30.”

“I helped his dad pick out perfume once at Mervyn’s—when it was called Mervyn’s.”

A touch of solidarity falls over the room, some fellow feeling like strangers ducking in from a storm, abstract and unshakable. (Later, Tim Hanson, owner of Movies On 35th Street in Minneapolis, tells me that Prince came in his store once with the singer Judith Hill. They rented Lina Wertmüller’s 1974 comedy-drama Swept Away, and never returned it. The movie is now 474 days late. “It’s racked up a late charge of $355.50,” Hanson says. “Before taxes.”)

For many, the crown jewel of the tour at Paisley Park seems to be Studio A. Visitors get a look at the drum machine and synthesizer used to record “When Doves Cry” from behind panes of smoked glass. We also get to hear a new unreleased (and untitled) track: a jazzy instrumental led by the New Power Generation’s Adrian Crutchfield on saxophone.

paisley park, chanhassen, prince, tours, music, local musicians, music history, purple rain
Iconic albums recorded in Studio A at Paisley Park include Lovesexy, Batman, Diamonds & Pearls, The Gold Experience, and Sign O’ the Times.

For others, it’s the 12,500-square-foot concert hall. The room, aglow in purple light, feels enormous as an airplane hangar. The vast ceiling is laced with a network of sound-absorbing panels and beam work. On various raised stages, there’s memorabilia—drum sets, guitars, otherworldly costumes so small they look like I could fold them up and slip them into my pocket, transparent speakers revealing their mechanical guts—from tours like 1999 and Purple Rain and Piano and Microphone (“This would be his final tour,” the placard says). 

For me, though, the highlight of a tour so expansive and candid comes at the very end, near the exit. It’s a length of chain-link fence hauled in from outside and hung with all manner of fan tribute. There are teddy bears, photos, paintings. There’s a little red Hot Wheels Corvette with a note of allegiance “From All the Maine DJs.” Elfar Sigmundsson of Iceland writes: “Thank U 4 the Memories.” It’s touching, heartwarming—astounding—that one person could reach so many. It’s the most human moment of the tour. 

Outside, I cross Audubon Road and look up. Funny enough, there’s a rainbow arching over Paisley Park. One by one, other visitors notice in a ripple effect of warbling cries across the parking lot. I concentrate on the rainbow, on each colored band, letting my eyes settle, finally, on the purple one.

In the Area: Chanhassen Side Trips

Chanhassen is largely chain-driven, with the requisite fast-casual mainstays clustered all over the place. But there are several indie drinking and dining spots—as well as unique sites—to combine with a Paisley Park visit. 

Like most good barbecue joints, ChuckWagon Charlie’s is unassuming. It’s tucked away in a kind of main-drag strip mall stylistically affected to look like a beach town, weathered shake shingles and all. Go for the pulled pork sandwich with a generous squirt of Charlie’s BBQ sauce.

A few doors down, you’ll find Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, which bills itself as the nation’s largest professional dinner theatre. While most visitors opt for Brindisi’s Pub (named after president/artistic director Michael Brindisi), the Hogarth Lounge across the hall is a quieter and more intimate spot. There’s a red brick fireplace in the corner, and the wainscoted walls and passport-blue club chairs make the place feel vaguely nautical.

Among the city’s other best dining options are Kai’s Sushi (excellent seared salmon belly) or a branch of the local chain Axel’s—with its deer antler chandeliers and mahogany, it feels like a mountain town supper club. Go for the Bull Bites (blackened tenderloin tips) or the walleye. (“We sell more walleye than any other restaurant in Minnesota!” the menu proclaims.)

Walk (or cross-country ski) the expansive maze of trails at the postcard-perfect Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (then visit the Arboretum Cafe on the second floor of the Oswald Visitor Center).

Another charismatic figure, Paul Twitchell, founder of the modern-day religion Eckankar, based his operations in Chanhassen. The Temple of ECK, located on a hill overlooking Lake Ann, is the heart of the group’s “spiritual campus” and looks like a nondenominational chapel with a gold, pyramid-shaped roof. It offers tours, three- and four-week classes, regular services in the otherworldly sanctuary, and a network of “contemplation trails.”